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The Elements of Beauty

Rob Vander Zee will auction his work May 11 to fund a high school art program.

When Rob Vander Zee was still an art student, beauty was not discussed. In the effort to push boundaries and explore knew realms of visual expression, artists and art critics had decided beauty was an inhibiting factor. Just as the impressionists led art beyond the boundaries imposed by detail and line and the cubists transcended the obligations of traditional representation, the art world in the past few decades has moved beyond aesthetics. Beauty is indefinable, therefore irrelevant. It is ideas that matter.

But for Vander Zee, beauty mattered. And one day he found himself able to acknowledge it. “I love beauty,” he said. “The moment I took that personal stand is the moment my art began to grow.”

Years later, Vander Zee had another revelation. He had been traveling to art museums all over the world to take advantage of new rules that allow the use of digital photography. “As I was going through the museums, I began to see there were certain paintings people were just drawn to,” Vander Zee explains. “Not the known masterpieces, but paintings that were masterfully done … I began asking myself, ‘What does it take to make a masterful painting?’” Vander Zee began taking notes, which he eventually “distilled” into nine elements. He began to teach “the nine elements of masterful painting” as a class. “My students went crazy for it. Their work just took off.” Vander Zee says this is because his goals, even for beginning students, transcend technical proficiency. He is always asking, “How do you take it to the next level?”

Attitude plays as large a part in Vander Zee’s teaching as technical skill. “I believe making art is 80 percent psychology and 20 percent skills,” he explained. In class, “we talk about fear, about how artists have to confront a lot of fear issues.” His breakthrough in teaching came when he conceptualized the effect of great paintings on their viewers by attuning every aspect – color, line, texture, pattern, to name four of the nine – to the point that the work “vibrates” at a frequency so perfect it stimulates the brain’s emotional hard-wiring as well as its visual pathways. Creating this harmony can only come through an act of self-introspection and -expression. His goal as a teacher is “for each individual to reach in and find that inner voice and pull it out and not be afraid to put it out in front of people.”

VANDER ZEE’S latest revelation came after he helped the daughter of a friend prepare an art portfolio for a portfolio fair at the Corcoran Gallery, where art school admissions officials met to look at the work of high school applicants. When his friend called him from the gallery to tell him how much excitement the portfolio was causing among the admissions officers, Vander Zee decided he would begin training other high school students to develop portfolios that would get them into the best art schools in the country.

“What I’ve seen amongst high school students is that oftentimes it’s a mish-mash or a hodge-podge of different things,” such as a unicorn or the student’s dog, Vander Zee explained. “Colleges want to see if the person is thoughtful enough to understand what a series of paintings is [and has the ability] to develop a particular theme or a focused content.” He believes most young artists simply don’t have access to a program that will help them maximize their talents, and “since they don’t get the proper education … they don’t end up being artists.”

Vander Zee is now accepting applications for the DC Palate Program, which will begin next fall. It is a two-year commitment for painters who will be juniors in high school. The students will meet once or twice a month during the school year for the two years until they graduate. “What we are looking for is drive,” Vander Zee explained. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we want the best artists per se. We want students who are really serious about learning.” For Vander Zee, a high GPA is less important than a commitment to art. “A lot of these kids might be wonderful in the visual arts but might not succeed in a school situation,” he explained.

The first year of the class will focus on teaching the necessary skills – physical and mental. “We want to make sure they understand how to draw, to work with form, light and shadow, types of edges [and] incorporated into that we want to introduce them to some art theory …. We’re going to have them delve into developing their own style. We’re not here to teach them how to paint a certain way, we’re here to facilitate them to find their own voice.” In the second year, students will work on expressing their voice in a series of ten paintings, which will form the portfolio they present to art schools in order to begin the next step in their progression as artists.

Vander Zee sees the palate project as the next step in his own progression as an artist, a teacher, and a human being. “When you’re in a position in this life where you’re doing well and you’re able to give back, then you need to give back,” he said. In order to begin funding the project, Vander Zee has donated a studio-full of his work, and his students have also contributed some of their own work, for a total of 112 paintings to be sold by silent auction on May 11.